Everything looks great from the lake, and Dane Checolinski knows it. The director of the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp. doesn’t hesitate to leverage Lake Michigan when he wants to showcase his community to prospective developers and entrepreneurs.
Clear skies, a gentle swell and shimmering blue water definitely make a good impression.
“I’m not sure you could find a more effective way to show the available sites,” says Thomas Goode, a commercial construction project manager with S.C. Swiderski of Mosinee.
Goode shared his observation during an astutely-timed waterfront tour offered to developers and site selectors participating in a late-summer familiarization tour of the economic development opportunities in Sheboygan and Sheboygan County. The harbor tour followed lunch at the Sheboygan Yacht Club — both definitely made a good impression.
The tour fulfilled a tactical mission as well. Sheboygan has several sites available along its riverfront. What better way to show how any potential building would fit into a growing, walkable, mixed-use development area than to show it from the water?
The late-summer “fam tour” was one of several conducted by economic developers in Sheboygan County this past year to provide an intimate look at opportunities within its communities. In addition to the waterfront tour, site selectors and developers were also treated to meetings with the CEOs of major companies, a presentation from a small business owner, a trolley tour of inland development sites and stops at a few of the city’s unique entertainment venues.
Social and fun, for sure, but sparking serious development discussions remained a mission-critical component of the day’s activities.
“We’ve got a $6.1 billion economy here in Sheboygan County,” Checolinski says. “We need to add housing, retail and modern industrial space to keep moving ahead.”
Sheboygan County has seen a rapid resurgence in its local economy since the dark depths of the Great Recession.
The county’s unemployment rate has fallen to 3.1 percent, third lowest in the state, according to the latest data issued by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. It was more than 11 percent in February 2010. County employers have added more than 4,000 jobs — and nearly $200 million in added payroll — in the past four years.
“We’ve got great assets to work with,” Checolinski says. “We have the lake, world-class golf, state parks and a great industrial base.”
In fact, the county has more jobs available than people to actually fill them. The latest employment data from the state show fewer than 2,000 people unemployed in Sheboygan County, while at the same time, employers based there have posted more than 2,700 openings in the past 90 days.
Recruiting and retaining new employees has become a critical part of the county’s workforce development plan. But the challenge to recruiting talent to the area — and one of the critical needs driving this particular fam tour — is the lack of housing in the county.
Acuity Insurance President and CEO Ben Salzmann punctuated the need during a stop at his company, which recently topped 1,200 employees and continues construction to add capacity to its Sheboygan headquarters.
“We are hiring more than 150 college grads a year,” Salzmann says. “We are really pushing young professionals and programs that support young professionals.”
As Acuity continues to expand – ongoing and planned construction could eventually see 4,000 employees at its Sheboygan County headquarters – the recurring obstacle to the company’s growth plans are adequate housing for its workforce. The needs range from market-rate apartments for young professionals to upscale, single-family homes for executives.
Acuity has even contemplated integrating apartments into its expanding campus, though it does not want to compete with the private marketplace if it can meet the need.
“We know what they want are housing options that allow them to live a pedestrian lifestyle,” says Sheri Murphy, vice president of services and administration for Acuity. “They want safe housing, close to the lake and walkable to the activities they are interested in.”
As luck would have it, a 1.5-acre site is available along the Sheboygan River just south of the marina that would fit the bill nicely. Sheboygan EDC is aggressively marketing the site, part of a previously planned condominium development derailed after the recession, for a new multi-family or condo development.
Whether it’s along the riverfront, or converted industrial sites such as the Garton Toy Factory (which in its previous life was an actual toy factory) property managers say opportunities exist.
“The need is there. I think we would definitely add units if it made sense for us,” says Sara Hillenbrand, vice president of compliance and reporting for Premier Real Estate Management, which already manages several sites in the city. “It’s a good market for us right now.”
A multi-family housing study prepared in 2014 found an immediate need for 103 additional rental units
and the potential to add up to 300 more units just to keep up with the current demand. At the time of the survey, there were no vacancies in more than 2,800 rental units in Sheboygan, Sheboygan Falls and Plymouth.
Several recent developments may help the county bridge the gap and keep the economic tide surging forward. Sheboygan’s Common Council has been meeting with a developer for the former Boston Store site in the city’s downtown for a mixed-use development that would include apartments, commercial developments and green space for concerts and events.
The city is also working out an agreement with SMET Investments for a proposed 43-unit apartment complex on South Eighth Street on the site of the former St. Cyril and Methodius convent.
Several developers have also expressed an interest in building on at least a portion of the 180-acre Schuchardt Farm site on the city’s west side.
Not all of the county’s economic ventures center on housing and real estate, though.
Manufacturing and retail have seen steady growth the past several years and tourism has always been a key cog in the regional economy. Tourism spending in Sheboygan County grew at a healthy pace in 2014, with direct visitor spending increasing 4.5 percent to $208 million, while tourism business sales grew nearly 5 percent to $345 million. Tourism industry payrolls grew to $73.5 million, up 4.1 percent.
“We had a record year in 2014,” says Amy Wilson, tourism and planning director for the Sheboygan County Chamber of Commerce.
The lake may yield some opportunities to continue that growth.
Driving along the Lake Michigan shoreline, it’s easy to spot several shipwrecks in shallower waters. Inspired by the success of Michigan’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Sheboygan has joined an effort to create a similar sanctuary encompassing the Wisconsin communities along the lake.
An 875-square mile area of Lake Michigan, extending from Port Washington to Two Rivers, has been identified for possible designation. The nominated area contains a collection of 39 known shipwrecks, 15 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials will visit several Wisconsin communities, including Sheboygan, in mid-November as the agency works through the designation process.
“Right now, there is only one other fresh water marine preserve,” says Sheboygan Mayor Mike Vandersteen. “This would really put us on the map.”